President Bush yesterday vetoed the cable television regulation bill that supporters said would hold down rates but that the president asserts would lead to higher cable rates for the 56 million households that subscribe.
The veto sets up a collision between Bush and Congress that could result in the first override for Bush, who has been sustained on 35 vetoes. Both the House and the Senate passed the bill last month with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said the chances of an override are "the highest . . . probably of any recent bill."
But the White House has mounted a furious campaign to persuade Republican congressmen to switch their votes and sustain the president. An override this close to Election Day might be seen as a political embarrassment. The White House has scheduled a breakfast with a group of Republican senators this morning to urge them to change their minds.
The bill would reverse some provisions of the deregulatory Cable Act of 1984, which has been blamed for the rapid increase in cable prices. It would permit the government to oversee rates charged for "basic" cable service and to order rollbacks when prices for other levels of service are deemed "unreasonable."
It also would regulate prices for cable equipment, set minimum customer-service standards and permit broadcasters to seek compensation from cable operators when the operator voluntarily carries the broadcasters' station.
Whether or not the veto is overridden, the bill appears to be shaping up as a campaign issue. The veto likely will be used against Bush by Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who helped draft the Senate's version of the bill and who has depicted it as a strongly pro-consumer measure.
"George Bush has vetoed the most important consumer legislation of the year, all to protect his rich friends in the cable monopolies," Gore said while campaigning in New Mexico yesterday.
Both supporters and opponents of the legislation said Bush's lobbying efforts in Congress in recent days have put his fellow Republicans in an uncomfortable position. With many Republicans on record supporting the bill in two votes, a change could be used against them in their reelection campaigns, they said.
The issue became so touchy that congressional sources said last week that the White House was considering ways to gracefully sidestep a fight, perhaps by signing the bill and embracing it.
The cable legislation has been the subject of numerous television ads in recent weeks, raising its profile as a populist, pocketbook issue. Bush, in his veto message yesterday, said, "Contrary to the claims made by its proponents, this bill will not reduce the prices Americans pay for cable television service."
Echoing arguments made by the cable industry, Bush said several "special interest" provisions would likely raise rates. Among these, he cited one designed to help broadcasters that require cable companies "to pay" broadcasting companies to carry their programs.
The bill actually would require cable companies to negotiate with broadcasters over the use of the broadcasters' signals, but would not require a payment. Cable operators now pick up local broadcast signals for free, but the broadcast industry has lobbied for this scheme known as "retransmission consent."
The Senate is expected to vote on the override Monday, with the House to follow. Lobbyists for the cable industry said they have the votes necessary to sustain the president, but lobbyists for the other side said an override is likely.
The bill has been the subject of a bitter and expensive lobbying campaign. Both sides have whipped up an outpouring of phone calls and letters to Congress with competing claims about the impact of the bill on consumer rates.
Broadcasters have lined up with consumer groups seeking passage. The cable industry has been allied with movie and TV studios, which oppose the bill because it gives broadcasters the right to seek payment from cable operators but doesn't grant the same right to the studios.
The battle has been played out in public for more than a month via dueling ad campaigns. The National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and several big cable companies have run a multimillion-dollar series of ads asserting that the legislation will drive rates up by saddling local operators with expensive regulations -- an assertion branded as misleading by the bill's supporters.
The NCTA also placed millions of fliers in subscribers' monthly bills, citing a Commerce Department study concluding that the bill would drive rates up substantially. The study, as it turned out, was based on data supplied mainly by NCTA, which distorted its conclusions in any case. The industry's tactics have been called into question by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
The broadcast industry has taken to the airwaves with its own costly campaign to argue that the bill's passage would be a victory for consumers.
Newspaper publishers also have a stake in the matter; most large publishers also own broadcast stations or cable systems and sometimes both. (The Washington Post Co. owns four stations and more than 50 cable systems in the United States).
One congressional aide who reviewed about 75 newspaper editorials about the cable bill found that newspapers owned by companies with interests in the cable industry opposed the bill uniformly. Newspapers whose companies owned only broadcast stations, or had no holdings in the TV business, favored the bill about 80 percent of the time, he said.
Staff writer Charles Babbington in New Mexico contributed to this report.